What Makes a Great Vacation?

Travel writer Pam Grout helps lead a discussion of the most meaningful, adventurous and life-changing vacation they've ever taken.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

REBECCA ROBERTS, Host:

Now, imagine all night jamming under the stars around the campfire, tagging endangered sea turtles, monitoring active volcanoes or hitching a wagon ride on the Oregon Trail. Sound too exhausting to be called a vacation? Well, not to travel writer Pam Grout. She is lucky enough to have taken some of these adventurous holidays and showcases them in "The 100 Best Vacations To Enrich Your Life," her new book.

We want to hear from you. What is the most meaningful life-changing vacation you've ever taken? Give us a call. Our number here at Washington is 800-989- 8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And you can also comment on our blog. It's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Pam Grout joins us from her home in Lawrence, Kansas. Welcome.

PAM GROUT: Hey, great to be here.

ROBERTS: So we should say, by enriching vacations, you're talking about vacations where you can volunteer, vacations where you can learn something, vacations where you can pick up a new skill. What counts as an enriching vacation?

GROUT: Well, it's kind of a new term now in the travel business - enriching vacation. But some of these have been going on for a long time. But basically, in this book, there's four different chapters. And - I call them before and after vacations, where you actually come back from your vacation a little bit different than you went. I mean, everybody wants to get relaxed and get a suntan. But this is a whole different take on a vacation, where you actually kind of get some perspective on your life and, you know, make a difference, especially in the volunteer vacations. Or, perhaps you learn about in arts and crafts that you wanted to do ever since you were a kid. So basically, it's a way to, like I said, come back different than when you left on your vacation.

ROBERTS: And are they growing in popularity?

GROUT: They are. In fact, one of the chapters, like I said, is arts and crafts vacation. And since 1990, they have quadrupled the number of, you know, art and craft vacations that are available out there. But, yes, they are definitely growing in popularity.

ROBERTS: And generally, who takes an enriching vacation as opposed to a just- sleep-late-and-drink-a-lot-of-beer vacation?

GROUT: Well, I think this is pretty much marketed to a boomer crowd. I think, people, you know, when you're still on your 20s or your teens, maybe you're still into getting that suntan. But as you get older, you start, you know, thinking about life and how much longer you have to live. So, you know, you kind of want every moment to count. And of course, vacation is part of that.

ROBERTS: Also, a lot of them aren't cheap.

GROUT: No. But, you know, it's interesting. Some of them are totally free. (Unintelligible) But, yeah, there are some that are, you know, pretty over the top, like there's a rock 'n' roll camp where you go and literally play guitar with The Who's Roger Daltrey. And that can be a little bit pricey. And there's some, where you get to race, you know, race a car - things like that. And those are expensive.

But there's also, you know, you can go to Patch Adams' Gesundheit Institute and help us revolutionize health care, and that's completely free. And you can go help at a North Dakota tourist town because, you know, they don't have enough people there that come in for the summer, and you can volunteer there and that's completely free. So there's a wide variety of vacations, from, you know, for every price range.

ROBERTS: Explain about the Patch Adams hospital a little further. How do you revolutionize health care on your vacation?

GROUT: Well, you know, Patch Adams - you might have seen that movie that Robin Williams has done a long time ago. And Patch Adams has a whole new take on health care and that, you know, it should be free. And so he's building what he calls the first silly hospital. And I mean, the architecture plans for - literally, there's a big nose on the front.

But people come - and of course, health, as we all know, is more than just our physical health that, you know, a lot of other things contribute to it. So it's a way of really getting to know the person and finding out what is really causing this illness. And Patch thinks that, you know, this is something every person has a right to. And so he's got - I can't remember how many acres. But in West Virginia, he's building this hospital. And in order to get it ready, volunteers come out and, you know, clear the land and just, you know, build some of the facilities that will be available for people when this gets open.

ROBERTS: Some of these strike me as a little bit of Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence. You know, if you convince people that they are having fun and doing it on vacation, you get free labor?

GROUT: Well, there may be some of that. But honestly, I mean, you talk to anybody that takes one of these vacations, they all say it's the best thing they've ever done. Yeah, their muscles may be a little bit furled. But well, they did something that they never had done before and they did something they didn't think they could do. And they did something that actually might, you know, help people out.

So it really is, you know, very rewarding. And I haven't talked to too many people that, you know, wouldn't turn around and do it again the next week if they can only get off, you know, from work.

ROBERTS: Yeah. Let's hear from Erwin(ph) in Meadow Vista, California. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ERWIN: Hi there.

ROBERTS: Hi.

ERWIN: We just - my family and myself just got back from nine night - nine days and eight nights at the Alasdair Fraser Sierra Camp - Sierra Fiddle Camp.

ROBERTS: Oh, really.

ERWIN: It was an amazing, amazing vacation. It's mostly classes all day long. It's a very stringent - learning different levels of fiddle - violin, guitars - all Celtic. And it's - had taught musicians from around the world as teachers. And every evening, there was a different theme, and parties in the evening, and it was just people staying up all night long, singing music.

ROBERTS: And were you a fiddler before you went to camp?

ERWIN: My children are fiddlers, and I took a cello and took some beginning cello. And they go on what Alasdair Fraser calls vertical integration, which is very young to very old. It's very family oriented and for any age. So our youngest fiddler was like 2, he was amazing. And there were very - there were elderly people there as well.

ROBERTS: Thank you so much for your call. Is that also a trend as finding the ways to target this towards whole families?

GROUT: I think a lot of people like doing that. I mean, I think anytime, you know, the kids want to try some of the sports or the hobbies, whatever the parents do. So, it really is a good thing. I don't know if that's a trend that we're seeing. In fact, I think we tend to see more people wanted to kind of get away. You know, like there's the girlfriend getaway where you kind of, you know, do your thing apart from the family, so I think it's more that. But I think, certainly, there are - yeah, family vacations are a big thing.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Jim(ph) in South Bend, Indiana. Jim, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JIM: Hi, nice to be there. Nice to be here with you.

ROBERTS: Yeah, you do.

JIM: I spent 11 days in Italy volunteering at the Olympics in Torino.

ROBERTS: What did you do there?

JIM: I was an ice patcher for the figure skating event.

ROBERTS: What does an ice patcher do?

JIM: Well, when the skaters use their toe picks to do the jumps, they create a little hole and to be fair, you have to sort of fill them in before, you know, the next set of people come out. So, we went out with buckets of flush and little blades and we filled in holes.

ROBERTS: And did you hang out with other volunteers? Did you meet the athletes?

JIM: Oh, yes, absolutely. What I did is - I'm a figure skater so, I was a little bit in a special position. They actually put me up in the Olympic village with the athletes for free because I was volunteering my time. So, I met a lot of the athletes. I met a whole bunch of volunteers from all over the world. It was really an incredible experience.

ROBERTS: Jim, thanks for your call. All right, Jim, does not feel taken advantage of his free labor, I guess?

GROUT: No. And in fact, like it's - that's very typical. I think, everyone comes back as well. That was fantastic, like, I'd do it again tomorrow.

ROBERTS: This is an e-mail from Howard(ph). It says, in response to the best vacation ever for me, it was WoodenBoat School in Brooklin, Maine. This is in your book, it is?

GROUT: It's actually there, yeah.

ROBERTS: It's summer camp for grown-ups. I learned how to restore wood canvas canoes about 10 years ago. Since then, I've been acquiring and restoring these gems ever since.

Restoring a wooden boat, it's - I guess that's not, you know, the broadest appeal in the world, but...

GROUT: Oh, there's certainly a big, you know, number of people that would like to do something like that. In fact, that's not the only place you can build a wooden boat. There're several places around the country, but Brooklin is definitely the place - the most well known. In fact, they have a program in the kindergarten through eighth grade school systems, where the kids actually learn to build wooden boats. It's that much a part of their culture.

ROBERTS: How many of these did you do yourself?

GROUT: Well, I either did all of them or someone that I trust did them. So I didn't do all of them, but I did great a number of them.

ROBERTS: Did you have any favorites?

GROUT: Oh, so many of them are my favorites. I really like Wavy-Gravy's circus skills camp out in California. I mean...

ROBERTS: Winnarainbow?

GROUT: Yeah. That's Camp Winnarainbow. That's one of my favorites. Cowboy college is great. Astronomy Camp. Yeah. Speaking of fiddling camp, you know, there's a wonderful place to learn to fiddle. Actually, you can learn mandolin, dulcimer, a lot of those kinds of instruments at a campground in Winfield, Kansas, which is near to me, and I go that every year. Although I have to say, I still haven't mastered the fiddle, but I'm still working on it. But it's great fun.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Mark(ph) in Portland, Oregon. Mark, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MARK: Hi, Rebecca. Thanks for taking my call. Say, I was thinking on the opening statement, I couldn't relate to it more than what I did seven years ago when I loss my job of 20 years. You know, local astronomer in Portland, Oregon, and teacher of sorts of the subject.

I have the great opportunity to borrow a several thousand dollar solar research-grade instrument and take it out on the sidewalks for about 10,000 miles across the nation that I covered in one month's time, and then trying to expose this to as many people as possible. I let thousands of people look through it - at the sun directly. Heard your guest mentioned Astronomy Camp, I guess there's many of those throughout the nation this time of the year, over warm summer nights, to get out and look at the night sky. But most people would never imagine looking directly at the sun.

And I should probably warn listeners that don't ever try this with a regular telescope. It's quite a process to allow someone to look directly at the sun and feel the activity on the surface, but to listen to people's comments - thousands of people across the nation. In fact, I was mistaken for being on NPR radio show in places. People thought I was conducting a survey along - people with the sun. A wide range of responses in letting people look at the most powerful thing we know that they would never think of doing and just let them randomly walk up on the sidewalks and look through this.

It looks like a large movie camera set up. The instrument itself drew a lot of curiosity landing me in the news and places. It's great to talk to thousands of people but to listen to other people's responses was really rewarding to me. I thought I was providing something just for other people. But in the process, it was really gratifying to learn from others, in what they have to say.

ROBERTS: It's sounds like it was kind of a turning point in your life, too. Did you learn about yourself on this?

MARK: It - well, I knew this when I left. It was a situation, losing my job after 20 years, which is a little shocking to me, originally. And in a way, people thought I was - close friends of mine accuse me of running away, kind of a hero's journey adventure. And it was, it did become that in the process. It became something where I was providing the source of education about something people would never think they would have the opportunity to learn from. Yet, I myself probably went more about myself in performing this.

And that listening to earlier discussions you had - I tried to call in here about what is it to be American - and I think our great opportunities to volunteer this nation and to do something for others is really what I felt I learned about what I was doing. I think we all have that available to us by simply taking the opportunity to do it.

ROBERTS: Mark, thanks for your call. Pam Grout, do you think that is a common reason for taking this sort of vacation is to learn something about yourself?

GROUT: Oh, definitely. And I think often when you are giving to other people - I mean, I think, that's really what we all want. We all want to give off ourselves. You know, whether it's, you know, learning how to better write poems, you know. We all want to give off ourselves, even though we don't all - were not all aware of that. Sometimes, we're trying to get things. But I think in giving is when we really get the things that we really want and that's why I think these vacations are so rewarding.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's take a call from Nicole in Boise. Nicole, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

NICOLE: Hi there. Happy Fourth of July.

ROBERTS: You, too.

NICOLE: I'm working, too, today.

ROBERTS: What do you do?

NICOLE: I wanted to share our experience. We are babysitting kids. My husband and I are from Los Angeles. Now, we live in Boise, and we got to take our twin boys to Yellowstone, which we normally go to Mexico or Hawaii, those kind of tropical vacations. And we spent almost a week in Yellowstone. And it was the most relaxing trip we ever took. We've learned so much about Lewis & Clark and about the history of this region of our nation, and our kids became junior rangers. And it was just fantastic.

ROBERTS: How old are your kids?

NICOLE: They're 8 years, and were 6 at the time.

ROBERTS: Nicole, thanks for your call.

NICOLE: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Roberta in St. Louis. Roberta, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ROBERTA: I'm pleased to be with you.

ROBERTS: You're on the air. What's your vacation?

ROBERTA: Well, we enjoyed the opportunity - my husband, Phil(ph), and I - to be students onboard a program called Semester at Sea. And it was four months around the world where we got university credit. But, as part of the experience, we were in Asia, in India and in Africa and had the chance to learn about the subjects that we were most interested in, whether they were art or science or political science. And the things like build a school in Africa are contributed to programs like that. That's been followed up with our opportunity to go then, later as adults, for two weeks, cruise on the seminar at the - through the Panama Canal.

And again, it's always been enriching because we have learned a great deal about the culture. We got professors with us, and have been had the chance to experience it firsthand.

ROBERTS: Thanks for your call. You know, I always see these trips with a professor in my own alumni magazine. I've always been sort of intrigued by them. Is that sort of education vacation a popular item?

GROUT: Yeah, it is. In fact, that's one of the vacations listed in the book. I've got several universities that are particularly known for that. But any more, almost every university is offering adult education. And in fact, that - the vacation she just mentioned, that was in the book as well and that's fantastic because you're with the professors, you're also with college students, which is pretty fun when you're out there for four months. And you go to the ports of (unintelligible) and you learn some other things about where you are and it is just a fantastic experience.

ROBERTS: I think we have time for one more call, this is Josh in Oklahoma, City. Josh, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JOSH: Ah, hello. Yeah. My best experience - the best summer of my life actually, was I took five months and got on a custom combine crew and we harvested wheat, some southwestern Oklahoma all the way up to the Canadian border.

ROBERTS: And why was it so great?

JOSH: It's just - it was a life-changing experience. I mean, I learned so much. It was like a survey course in the economics of farming and - you not grew up in Oklahoma City and it's a totally different experience. Yeah, it's a city, you know, and I've never experienced being at a farm before and, you know, it's something that - it took me out of what I was used to and put me into something that was completely alien. It was amazing.

ROBERTS: Josh, thanks for your call.

Pam, you know that we're been hearing sort of all over the map, literally, places people are going and things they are learning. Are there any common threads of things people can do to make these vacations more successful, any recommendations you have?

GROUT: Well, definitely go with an open mind, because again, we're trying to shake you out of your rut here. So if you have preconceived notions, you could possibly be disappointed. But it's very important to go with an open mind, and, you know, a sense adventure, which is, you know, anybody with a good vacation should be doing that anyway. But definitely, you know, have an open mind and be open to try new things and don't doubt yourself, you know. Say, hey, you know, I'm willing to try this. Why not? I mean, the guy in Oklahoma City said that he never been to a farm. Here he is, you know, on a combine crew. I mean, it's just amazing, you learn that you are capable of doing all these things that you didn't think you could. So open mind. That's the number one thing.

ROBERTS: And leave the cell phone behind?

GROUT: Leave the cell phone, the BlackBerry or computer, all that stuff behind. And at first, you're going to freak out like wow, I got to know if I can do that. But then, you fell into a rhythm and you realized that, hey, you know, it's the best thing that ever happened to me.

ROBERTS: Pam Grout is the author of "The 100 Best Vacations to Enrich Your Life" she joined us from her home in Lawrence, Kansas. Thanks so much.

GROUT: Thank you.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.